People are methodologists without realizing it until I ask them if they’ve ever done a jigsaw puzzle. Most of us have, usually as children, and we solved them by following a prescribed system of rules while adhering to a strict set of principles, automatically and without giving any of it much thought. When I ask people to tell me the first thing they do when they go about solving a jigsaw puzzle, most say they start with the corners and the edges. A few say they begin with colors and shapes. They are all wrong. Those places are not where they begin.
When I tell a group the first step in solving a jigsaw puzzle is opening the box, some complain loudly, saying of course everyone knows you have to open the box first. Yes, I say, and everyone knows you have to take the pieces out of the box. And everyone knows you have to turn them all right side up, too. These are the obvious assumptions, and I bet that when challenged to think more thoroughly, you will learn that we need a surface that is large, flat, horizontal, not wet, not sticky, and not in the back of a pickup truck going down a rutted, dusty road. Keep on and you will discover we are not blindfolded or wearing mittens. Nor are we in a strong wind or a downpour or in the middle of a busy downtown intersection. Things like this are so obvious to all of us that we take them for granted. We quite naturally assume them to be so essential and so integral to doing jigsaw puzzles that we could not solve them otherwise and discussing them is nonsense.
In the sense that puzzles are mental exercises that test our ingenuity, knowledge, patience, and perseverance, behavioral science-level research is a specialized type of puzzle-solving.
To solve business problems successfully, we need to take everything into account and not just the obvious things. We must determine everything that will affect our ability to solve our particular puzzle. Too much research these days is the equivalent of not having all the puzzle pieces and not turning them all right side up, either. What if we didn’t follow the appropriate methodology? What if we pulled two pieces out of the box at random, tried to fit them together, and threw them away when they didn’t? We’d never solve the puzzle, of course. What if we pulled two pieces out at random, tried to fit them together, and threw them back in the box if they didn’t? Solving the puzzle this awkward way isn’t impossible but it would take a long, long time. Only after we have completed all the necessary preliminary steps that most take for granted can we begin to apply our strategies of working first on corners, edges, and colors.
When it comes to solving research puzzles, far more can go wrong than with our jigsaw puzzle and our errors are much more costly.
- With a jigsaw puzzle, we are handed a detailed photo of what the end result looks like. With research, there is no pretty picture on a box. With research, the final image emerges only after we have found the right pieces, collected them, and put enough of them together that we can see the big picture.
- With a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces are all boxed up neatly in one place. With research, the pieces are scattered all over and we have to go find them before we can begin to make sense of what they are telling us.
- With a jigsaw puzzle, we are handed every one of the pieces. With research, we are handed none of the pieces. Even tougher, we don’t know how many puzzle pieces there are. We have to figure out how many bits we’ll need to collect before the big picture emerges in enough detail for us to understand what it is and what it means.
The more we can pre-determine how many research puzzle pieces we need and where we need to look for them, the better off we are. This is why real professionals begin solving research puzzles by deciding the exact things we want to learn and exactly how want to be able use our new knowledge.
No matter what puzzle you are working on, don’t start in the middle.
Go back to the beginning and take nothing for granted along the way. Figure out what methodologies you will use to solve your puzzles. Remember the best research methodologies produce results that are on target, on time, and on budget.
What I always loved most about really top-notch consumer and market research was having to figure out what the real puzzle was before solving the obvious one.